Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam announced Tuesday that an extradition bill that brought millions of protesters into the streets is now “dead.”
The bill would have allowed suspected criminals to be deported to China for trial, which protesters fear would threaten rule of law and freedom of speech in Hong Kong. Backlash against the bill has morphed into a broader pro-democracy movement to counter Beijing’s growing control over the Chinese territory.
“There are still lingering doubts about the government’s sincerity or worries whether the government will restart the process in the [legislative council],” Lam said at a news conference. “I reiterate here that there is no such plan. The bill is dead.”
Still, she did not use the word “withdraw,” which has been the foremost demand of protesters since the government suspended the bill in mid-June.
To skeptics, that left open the possibility that the bill might be raised again during her government’s term, which runs until June 2022.
”The proper way for Mrs. Lam to ‘kill’ the bill is to invoke article 64 of the Rules and Procedures, to FORMALLY WITHDRAW the bill,” tweeted Joshua Wong, the student activist recently released from prison. “However, she fully IGNORE this procedure in her speech,” Wong wrote.
The Civil Human Rights Front, which helped organize the protests, said Lam’s statement failed to address protesters’ demands. “Dead” is not a term in any of Hong Kong’s legal texts, said the front’s vice convener, Bonnie Lam.
The front said it would continue to hold protests in coming weeks.
The month of mass protests sparked by the bill were among the largest ever seen in the former British colony. More than a quarter of its 7.4 million residents participated, according to protest organizers’ counts. Police have given lower estimates.
On several occasions, clashes broke out between police and demonstrators, with police firing tear gas and rubber bullets. Last week, several hundred protesters broke into the legislative complex and vandalized its inner chamber.
More than 70 protesters, some as young as 14, have been arrested on charges including unlawful assembly, possession of weapons, obstruction and assault of police, and disorderly conduct in a public place.
Four protesters have committed suicide in recent weeks, each leaving behind a message related to the extradition bill.
In addition to demanding the bill be withdrawn, protesters have also called on Lam to resign and the government to stop labeling protests as “riots,” unconditionally release everybody arrested in connection with protests and launch an independent investigation into what they believe was an abuse of power by police.
Lam said the government had not given a label to the protests, that granting amnesty to arrested protesters would violate the rule of law, and that the Independent Police Complaints Council was setting up a “fact-finding study” on the protests.
Critics say the council, whose members are appointed by the chief executive, is not independent and may take a pro-Beijing stance.
Andrew Li Kwok-nang, Hong Kong’s first chief justice, wrote in an op-ed Tuesday that a commission of inquiry led by a judge would be a better venue for “ascertaining the truth.”
“It is deemed to be a judicial proceeding,” he wrote. “Its hearings are open and the public and media can attend. It can summon witnesses. Evidence is given under oath and covered by absolute privilege.”
“Allegations and grievances will be aired and explored in open public hearings. This would have a therapeutic effect for society and would assist in the process of reconciliation.”
Last week, two university student unions rejected invitations from Lam to hold closed-door discussions, saying that it seemed like a “public relations stunt” and that Lam should address the protesters’ demands first.
Lam said Tuesday she was willing to participate in open, public dialogue with university students, but without prerequisites.
Lam said she realized that both last month’s mass protests and the 79-day occupation of Hong Kong’s main roads during the pro-democracy Umbrella Movement of 2014 reflected “fundamental and deep-seated problems in Hong Kong.”
She did not specify what the problems were, but said it had been wrong to “ignore” those problems five years ago.
Lam said she understood that government responses may not have met people’s wishes so far, but that this was due to “various concerns and actors” that she did not name.
“This has nothing to do with my own pride or arrogance,” she said.